The Mysteries of Paris was the greatest bestseller of 19th century France. Serialised in the Journal des Débats in 1842, it’s a big, sprawling novel (over 1,300 pages in this new translation) full of melodrama, sex, violence, pathos & some of the most exciting cliffhangers in 19th century fiction. It also spawned clones all over Europe – The Mysteries of London, The Mysteries of New York etc – & was hugely influential on later French novelists. If you’re read Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables you’ll be able to see those influences. It fed the public’s appetite for sensational stories of Paris low-life as well as entering the salons & drawing rooms of the wealthy, showing that evil can lurk at every level of society, no matter what your family or circumstances. It’s impossible to discuss the plot without spoilers as the narrative is so plot-driven so I’ll just describe some of the main characters & try to show the complexity of the interwoven nature of the narrative.
Monsieur Rodolphe – actually the Grand Duke of Gerolstein, a German state. Rodolphe has overcome a traumatic time in his youth & now masquerades as a working man in Paris, helping good people with his wealth & connections while also searching for
Germain, a young man who has been separated from his mother (Madame Georges, who runs a farm Rodolphe has set up on charitable lines to help workers get back on their feet) by his wicked father, known as the Schoolmaster. Germain was placed in a bank with the object of becoming the inside man in a robbery planned by his father. An honest man, Germain denounced his father & is now in hiding. Rodolphe traces him to the boarding house owned by Madame & Monsieur Pipelet where he meets Germain’s neighbour, the hard-working, cheerful seamstress,
Rigolette. A young woman with a sunny personality, she is friendly with her neighbours but allows no romantic entanglements although she has a soft spot for Germain. She knows to within a sou what she must earn each week & keeps her room spotlessly clean. She has, however, spent some time in prison when she was found homeless in the streets & there she met
Songbird. Also known as Fleur-de-Marie. An orphan who is saved from a beating by Monsieur Rodolphe in the opening chapter of the novel. Songbird is good, beautiful & pure, even though she has been put on the streets by the Owl, a wicked old woman who bought Songbird as a child from Madame Seraphin, housekeeper to corrupt solicitor,
Jacques Ferrand. Ferrand has a hand in every plot in the book. The ultimate hypocrite, his outward image of pious respectability hides a truly evil, immoral man. Germain finds himself working in his office & ends up in prison as a result of trying to help the Morel family who live on the top floor of the Pipelet’s house. Louise Morel, working for Ferrand as a housemaid, is seduced by him & rejected when she falls pregnant while her father goes mad & is sent to an asylum while his family are on the point of starvation. Ferrand had bought Songbird from her mother who wanted the child gone & was then told that she was dead. He is also responsible for the ruin of the Baroness de Fermont & her daughter Claire when he embezzles the money they had entrusted to the Baroness’s brother who had unwisely invested it with Ferrand.
I could go on! Other characters include the cold adventuress Countess Sarah McGregor who will do anything for a title; the Slasher, a murderer who becomes Rodolphe’s loyal servant; Madame d’Harville, a young girl forced into marriage by an unsympathetic step-mother with a man who has a dreadful secret. She eventually becomes converted to charitable causes by Rodolphe who she has known since childhood; the Martials, a family of evil scavengers who make a living from crime, robbing & murdering their victims with impunity; the She-Wolf, lover of the Martial’s eldest son, the best of the bunch, who wants to go straight & plans to extricate his two youngest siblings & start a new family.
There are kidnappings, reconciliations, denunciations, terrible scenes of violence & depravity, narrow escapes from death but also many scenes of humour, surprise & very satisfying retribution. Sue was not only telling an exciting story, he was also concerned to expose the iniquities of life for the hard-working, honest poor as well as the corruption in every sphere of public life. The precarious existence of so many people meant that just one false step, one illness that meant you got behind with your rent or couldn’t work, could be the first step to prison or death. Every now & then he stops the narrative to rage against conditions in prison or the tangles that honest people could get into through the evil of others.
Some of the characters are types – Songbird remains pure at heart even though she is no longer innocent. She’s the original prostitute with a heart of gold, untouched by the corruption around her. Rodolphe is more than just a fairy godfather, throwing his money around. He has known real sorrow & his desire for revenge against those who have wronged him is tempered with the knowledge that he has to atone for his own actions as well.
The Mysteries of Paris is a great read. Once I started, I could barely put the book down. I read it with my 19th century bookgroup over the last ten weeks. It divides conveniently into ten books of around 130pp & an Epilogue. I must say that the Epilogue was completely superfluous & added nothing to the story. The ending of Book Ten was just perfect & the Epilogue just seemed unnecessary although it did complete the story of a few characters. Honest piety became sickly & moralistic &, after the frankness of the storytelling, this seemed cowardly & conventional. I would almost recommend skipping it. I could have imagined a much better ending for the characters than the one Sue gave us. Although, in a sense, there are no surprises in the way the plot works out (as Oscar Wilde wrote, “The good ended happily and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means.”), it’s the journey that is surprising & very involving. If you’re looking for a big novel to lose yourself in where plot is everything & subtle characterisation is less important, The Mysteries of Paris will not disappoint.